The Best of Andy Rooney

Anyone who writes anything that gets into print receives letters from the grammar police.

The grammar police are a large, unaffiliated group of readers, usually women, often retired schoolteachers, who pour over the newspaper every day searching for dumb mistakes -- like writers who say "pour" when they mean "pore."

It's seldom that a person who looks for errors can't find a few, and you can tell from the tone of the letters they write that it makes them feel good all over. They're proud of themselves. If I'm lucky, the errors they find aren't in my column -- but I'm not always lucky.

The grammar police have a few favorites. If you write, "Betty only has one brother," they're quick to dash off a note saying, "Betty has only one brother."

If you write, "I wish I was taller," the grammar police make certain you know that you should have used the subjunctive and written, "I wish I were taller."

If you say "less" when you should have said "fewer," they'll get you. The fussy ones don't like it when you say "over" when you mean "more than," either. Or "further" for "farther."

And don't, under any circumstances, write that anything is "very unique." There's nothing the grammar police like better than to point out that there's no comparative to "unique." Something is or isn't and there are no degrees of it.

Most of them stick to a few little rules they learned as children, but every once in a while you get one with a sophisticated complaint. A man wrote saying I used the word "people" too often when I should be using "persons." He contended -- and I think he's right -- that "people" refers to groups of individuals, whereas "persons" refers to individual individuals.

The idea police are worse than the grammar police. When you express a thought that the idea police don't agree with, they aren't content to let you know how wrong you are. They get downright vicious. They won't rest until you've been fired. They write the editor and the publisher and sometimes get other people to write, too.

Editors are not susceptible to being easily threatened but they're all nervous enough about their circulation that they read the cancel-my-subscription letters. A typical one says, "I have been reading my local paper for 27 years but I shall never read it again as long as Andy Rooney's column appears in it." (They get that "shall" from the grammar police.)

I wish some of the grammar police would start going after writers who always make the word "skill" plural. No one is skilled anymore. He or she has "skills." If someone is a good mechanic, I think it should be said that he has skill as a mechanic, not that he has mechanical skills.

There's a little of the grammar police in most people ... persons, I mean.

(This classic Rooney column was originally published May 20, 1994.)

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